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The "Keys" to Repossession: Advocating for a Residential Landlord in Rent Court
Landlord/tenant law encompasses a variety of actions concerning the relationship between lessor and lessee including, among other things, breach of lease cases, failure to pay rent actions, and tenant holding over proceedings. Rent court, the venue for actions grounded in a tenant’s failure to pay his or her rent on time, presents a great opportunity for young lawyers (and “soon-to-be” lawyers) to gain valuable courtroom experience. However, the rules that govern failure to pay rent actions are unique and a complete understanding of the policies and procedures associated with these actions is essential to successful representation of a residential landlord.
As the attorney representing a residential landlord in rent court, you have a single objective: to show that a tenant failed to pay rent that is due and owing. To successfully make this showing, a complaint must accurately compute the total amount of rent and late fees due at the time of filing or risk dismissal by the court. Md. Code Ann., Real Prop., § 8-208(d)(3)(i) sets the legal maximum for late fees at five percent (5%) of the amount of rent sought and prohibits the use of a lease containing any provision providing for a penalty in excess of this amount. The complaint should also clearly identify all bases for the total outstanding rent, keeping in mind that charges other than rent, such as utilities, can only be included if the lease specifically identifies those charges as permissible additional rent.
Upon making the required showing that rent is due and owing, a tenant has only one defense: condition(s) at the rental property that present a substantial and serious threat of danger to their life, health, or safety, in which case the tenant may seek to open a rent escrow account until the landlord repairs the dangerous condition(s).
Make Your Case
Generally, formal evidentiary rules are not followed in rent court, witnesses are not called, and documents are not entered into evidence. Those generalities notwithstanding, the complainant must substantiate its claim through whatever evidence may be available. To a degree, successful representation hinges on your client’s recordkeeping and ability to produce the necessary documents, including the most recent lease to substantiate the rental amount and additional charges deemed as rent, as well as the tenant’s ledger documenting all charges and payments. At times, it may be necessary to have the landlord testify as to any charges and payments disputed by the tenant. The most important thing to remember is that the only thing a judge in rent court wants to hear is whether rent is due; evidence concerning other breaches of a tenant’s lease is irrelevant and superfluous testimony or documentation is disfavored.
Know Your Court
Failure to pay rent actions are generally disposed of in one of four ways: if the tenant has paid his or her rent prior to the court date, the case will be voluntarily dismissed by the landlord; if the tenant does not appear, the court will enter a default judgment for the landlord; if the tenant appears and agrees that he or she owes the rent, the court will enter a consent judgment; and if the tenant appears and contests the amount of rent claimed by the landlord or asserts a defense, the court will try the case and make a determination as to the amount of rent due, if any. As with many legal proceedings, each county in Maryland handles rent court differently. As a result, it is important to be familiar with the different procedures employed in each venue as adherence to local procedures could prove essential in the successful representation of your client.
In Baltimore City, voluntary dismissals and any amendments must be provided to the clerk upon entering the courtroom. The clerk will call only those cases in which a tenant has appeared or that involve special proceedings to be heard by the judge. Special proceedings include amendments to the total amount of rent and late fees due, requests that the tenant’s right of redemption be foreclosed, or requests for money judgments. Voluntary dismissals and default judgments are not individually called and are read into the record by the clerk.
On the other hand, in Howard County, the judge will call each individual case to determine whether the landlord and tenant are present. The court often requests that the landlord state whether the leased property is licensed, the address of each individual and the total amount due and owing. A recent Maryland case, McDaniel v. Baranowski, 419 Md. 560 (2011), requires that a landlord possess a current license to operate the leased premises, as mandated according to local code, if they wish to utilize summary ejectment procedures. Additionally, unlike Baltimore City where you simply hand the clerk a list of voluntary dismissals, in Howard County you must inform the clerk, prior to the commencement of the docket, which cases you are voluntarily dismissing and sign an individual form for each dismissal.
Baltimore County also requires that voluntary dismissals be signed upon arrival. The clerk will hold a “roll call” outside of the Judge’s presence to determine who is present and whether they have the required documentation. If a landlord is present but a tenant is not, the clerk will enter a default judgment into the record. Only cases that are contested or that involve special proceedings will go before the judge. In addition, Baltimore County has two important nuances not found in other jurisdictions. First, the landlord must prove that the tenant is not a deployed member of the armed services. This can easily be accomplished by searching the Department of Defense’s web site (be sure to print the page and have it ready to produce to the clerk). Second, to prove that the leased property is licensed, the license number must be stated on the Complaint and a copy of the license itself should be on hand.
In Prince George’s County, voluntarily dismissals must be sent to the clerk via facsimile by three o’clock in the afternoon the day before the scheduled appearance. Upon arriving at court, the Judge will call only those cases involving special proceedings or where a tenant is present; default judgments will be entered against all tenants who are not present.
Judgment in Favor of the Landlord is a Judgment for Possession, Not Money
The filing of failure to pay rent actions and the relief available are governed by Section 8-401 of the Real Property Article. Typically, when a failure to pay rent complaint is filed against a tenant, a judgment in favor of the residential landlord entitles the landlord to repossess the leased property. While it is possible to seek a monetary judgment in addition to the typical judgment for possession, it is difficult. Unlike failure to pay rent actions where posting of the complaint on a tenant’s property is sufficient service, personal service of a complaint for money judgment is required. Given the short time between the filing of a complaint and the time your case is scheduled in rent court, personal service is not typically successful.
Rent Court is Only Half the Battle
After obtaining a favorable judgment for your client, if the tenant does not tender the amount owed or appeal the District Court decision within four business days after the date of judgment, the landlord can file a petition for warrant of restitution to initiate the process of scheduling an eviction. A tenant, however, has a nearly absolute right of redemption under Maryland law. As a result, after obtaining a judgment against a tenant, if the tenant tenders the rent and late fees along with all court costs, he or she has lawfully regained possession of the premises, which vacates the judgment for possession and stops any pending eviction proceeding. A tenant has this right until the very moment the Sheriff arrives at his or her door to perform the eviction, but the process does not allow tenants to play games. If a tenant is chronically delinquent, he or she may lose the right of redemption. In Baltimore City, if the tenant has been delinquent in rent payment at least four times in the twelve months preceding the filing and a judgment has been entered in favor of the landlord at least four times, on the fifth judgment a landlord may request that the tenant’s right of redemption be foreclosed due to prior judgments. In all other counties, proof of only three prior judgments in the preceding year is required.
Keep it Simple, Solicitor
The underlying rule for representing a residential landlord in rent court: come fully prepared, but keep it brief. Because of the high volume of cases on this docket, there is limited time (and often patience) for attorneys who are unprepared. To that end, a succinct accounting of a tenant’s outstanding balance is all that is needed for success.
Kerri Smith is a third year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a Law Clerk at Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White LLC. She can be reached at email@example.com.